May 29, 2016 by Norris Burkes

Excerpts from “Hero’s Highway” by Norris Burkes

During Memorial Day, as we count the heroes lost to war, I try to remember one face that represents the many. One face I remember was Pfc. Justin Casillas, whose funeral I officiated only a month after I returned from Iraq.

I remember the day well because it was a beautiful morning in Woodland, Calif., rows of trees shading us from the predicted 100-plus-degrees.

Inside the funeral home, I took my place at the podium. I tried to speak, but I felt a limp prayer clogging my throat. While handkerchiefs were being charged with heartache, my abrupt cough expelled my prayer.

“God, help us honor this young man today,” I prayed among the sobs filling the small chapel. “In your son’s name” I begged God to “Help us see both the intent of his life and the meaning of his sacrifice.”

After I spoke, Brig. Gen. Robert Woods from Fort Hood, Texas, stood to tell Justin’s story of how he’d run into incoming fire to retrieve his injured friend. But as he carried his wounded battle buddy through enemy fire, a mortar round landed 5 feet away, killing them both.

The general concluded the indoor ceremony by laying five posthumous medals on Justin’s polished casket, including a Bronze Star. He then saluted the casket and signaled me to lead the military pallbearers toward the waiting hearse.

Outside the funeral home, a group called the Patriot Guard Riders lined both sides of the street, their Harley-Davidson motorcycles forming a cautious gauntlet.

“Mount up!” shouted their leader, beginning our 10-mile procession to the rural grave.

Residents lined the route, bowing a head or covering their heart with a hand. Emergency vehicles brought light and ceremony as police officers saluted the motorcade. Aging veterans removed accoutrement-laden hats, giving crooked, but respectful salutes.

At the graveside cemetery, I spoke for a few minutes, read the 23rd Psalm, and ended with a prayer.

My “amen” cued a three-man firing detail to fire 21 shots. The shots are a wartime custom to announce that the battlefield has been cleared of the dead and the fighting may restart.

A lone bugler played taps, the vibrating melancholic tones straining the emotions of the most stoic.

With the last note, the honor guard responded like crisp marionettes strung by a master’s hand. They recovered each corner of the flag from the casket, snapping it so taut that it startled a nearby mourner. They folded it twice lengthwise and then began a series of folds that transformed the flag into a shaped triangle.

The officer affectionately placed three shell casings into the folded flag, each representing a volley. The folds were meant to conceal the blood-red stripes and leave nine shining stars exposed on the double-sided blue canvas. Thus folded, the implication is that God’s creation of stars and sky is the only thing to be treasured; the blood stripes, symbolizing the sacrifice of man, are minimized.

After taking the folded flag from the officer, the Sergeant knelt before Justin’s mother, Donna, to present a wrinkle-less flag.

His whispered words weren’t audible to most, but I found myself lip-syncing in memorized silence: “This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation and the United States Army as a token of appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”

The funeral director dismissed the crowd, but a few people stopped briefly to lay a rose upon the casket. Only selected family members stayed to watch the funeral directors winch the casket into the grave, a few inches at a time.

Justin’s mom stood from her chair and leaned dangerously close to her son until she was on her knees in the dirt. Finally convinced that Justin would remain there, she suspended a rose above the casket and dropped it just above his heart.

Today when people ask me how I’ve managed to do so many death notifications and the funerals that follow, I can’t easily answer them. Usually, I tell them how grateful I was to be an eyewitness to the honor, character and bravery of these soldiers. If they could do their job at such a high cost, then I can certainly find the courage to do my job of comforting their loved ones.

Gratefully, most combat veterans have come home on a plane. The other heroes like Justin came home under a flag. Memorial Day is their day. Remember them always.

– Norris Burkes is author of “Hero’s Highway.” He retired from the Air National Guard in 2014. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter @chaplain.